February 13, 2013 4:10 pm
Imagine being able to turn off the chills in a movie theater or on a morning walk to the subway. In mice, at least, that’s now possible. Researchers from the University of Southern California pinpointed the sensory network of skin neurons responsible for relaying the sensation of being cold, and then shut them off.
The mice in the study could still feel heat or sensations of touch, but they did not recognize the cold. In one group of mice, researchers destroyed certain of their neurons—ones that expressed a particular protein, which they’d previously linked to the experience of feeling cold. They exposed those mice, as well as a group that hand not been tinkered with, to a multi-temperature surface in the lab, which ranged from 32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
The normal mice, the team found, stuck around areas heated to a comfortable 86 degrees and avoided the exceptionally cold and hot zones. The modified mice, however, only avoided the hotter areas. Even when the cold should have been painful or even potentially dangerous to their little mouse toes, they didn’t flinch a whisker. The researchers concluded that the altered mice had effectively lost their ability to feel the cold.The goal here isn’t to alter humans so they can play in the snow for hours without noticing, though. The researchers hope these types of findings can lead to better understanding of human sensation, which could help to develop drugs that more thoroughly knock out the feeling of pain, without completely numbing sensation for suffering patients.
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